Media criticism is a bit of a hot topic right now.
Casey Bloys, the CEO of HBO, apparently has a lot of spare time on his hands. At least enough to pull a page from your average internet troll and set up multiple accounts trolling critics of HBO shows.
Bloys issued an apology. Fair enough, but it’s wild that a multimillionaire CEO felt the need to do this in the first place.
In actuality, though, Bloys is far from the only media giant expressing discontent with critics. Game of Thrones‘ producers (and cast) have expressed surprise at the backlash to their final season. Academy Award winner Viola Davis stated in 2022 that “critics serve absolutely no purpose.”
Clearly, we disagree. Media criticism serves a lot of different purposes.
Media Criticism Can Be MeanLet’s be honest from the start. Media critics can be mean.
Sometimes artists pour their heart and soul into work, and it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s just one outlier for whom it doesn’t work. Other times, it’s widely panned. Art is so personal that there is no way this isn’t going to be hurtful for any writer, actor, musician, designer, etc.
Yet even then there’s a difference between critics who explain why they don’t like it and critics who make it all about, well, themselves. See a notorious review of Pixar’s delightful Turning Red, which its publisher pulled. Why? Not for censorship, but for the fact that the reviewer essentially decided to be cliche and offensive by complaining that no white American man could possibly relate to an Asian preteen’s story and therefore the movie was intrinsically bad.
There’s a difference between realizing that a movie may not connect with you, which is fine, and deriding it based on the lack of connection.
Wait. If art is inherently personal, both in terms of the artists making it and for the audience experiencing it, then why shouldn’t not connecting with it immediately make it bad?
Art Is SubjectiveMedia criticism looks at art. Art, unlike math, is subjective.
However, there are generally agreed-upon types of writing, acting, and musical trends that people regard well, and those that people don’t.
Generally, if a series that always grounded itself in how every decision could bring about consequences for the decider and society around them decides to hinge its finale on the idea that the heroine “kinda forgot” about her enemies, critics call it bad writing. It breaks what people appreciated about the story in the first place and defies believability. Maybe, rather than insisting people just didn’t understand you, make a better show.
At the same time, the idea of general consensuses on what makes “good” art does not automatically mean that something going against the grain is definitely bad writing or poor acting or trash music. In fact, critics and audiences tend to like it when art pushes for originality and makes them think about concepts in new ways.
Plus, just because an artwork doesn’t meet any of this doesn’t make it useless. Many of us proudly admit that we love certain “bad” movies or songs.
Media Criticism: The Critics vs. Audience DivideHow does this tie into the idea that media criticism isn’t just about connecting with a particular piece of art?
Well, because there’s often a noticeable divide between critics and audiences. Audiences tend to mostly watch movies and shows, read books, or listen to music to enjoy it. Critics focus on examining it. Hence, while personal connection affects whether or not critics like it, critics may end up disliking films they ultimately think are technically good.
A movie that focuses on pushing the boundaries of what filmmaking means may not appeal to audiences who just want to have fun and forget about work for two hours.
Sometimes critics appreciate what a movie does well, or particular elements of it. Overall, though, the art has too much unenjoyable or poorly done for them to recommend it. For example, critics widely praised Emilia Clarke for her acting as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones‘ ill-fated final season. However, her character’s writing received the most accusations of bad writing.
What’s The Point of Media Criticism?Why do critics examine art instead of just enjoying it, though?
Well, the thing about critics examining art is that for them, examining is actually how they enjoy art.
Critics are people who enjoy art at least as much as the average person, if not more so. In fact, media criticism exists because people like art so much that they spend their free time thinking about the different elements of it. What makes a story work? What musical notes are compelling?
Media critics are people who, in the words of theatre critic Arifa Akbar:
At its best, criticism is an art in itself albeit an imperfect one – subjective and dependent on taste and sensibility. At its worst, it can show cruelty and whimsy as well as the unconscious biases we carry. If you love stories – on film, radio, canvas, page or stage – you are likely to be interested in their architecture: how they build their worlds, characters, effects. This is what critics spend their lives looking at as rigorously as they can. Criticism is, in effect, a homage to storytelling.
Artists use their art for the same innumerable variety of reasons that people consume it: to comment on society (Knives Out, anyone?), to escape into a fantasy (romantic comedies, K-Pop, action movies), to explore an individual story and experience (Taylor Swift songs), to ask questions of art and culture and religion, to just laugh. Media critics enjoy exploring the purposes of art.
Critics also don’t tend to demand that everyone cater to their opinion. When they do cross this line, they often get deserved backlash (see Turning Red).
Criticism Changes Over TimeAs part of that purpose examination, media criticism anchors itself in the moment. Stories that resonate in a particular day and age don’t always resonate later on. Sometimes art “ages badly.”
In addition, criticism and popular assumptions sometimes shift over time for the positive. For example, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks movie prequel, Fire Walk With Me, met intense criticism when it premiered. Quentin Tarantino even said that:
David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different.
Pretty harsh. Yet Fire Walk With Me has come to be regarded as one of the best movies of the 1990s. Its themes of misogyny and abuse make it remarkably ahead of its time.
Another well-known example of a film that wasn’t well-received at the time of release? Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, that’s right: fans and critics didn’t love Empire in 1980. Fortunately that’s no longer the case!
The Answer: Quality and DiversityContrary to HBO’s opinion, media criticism doesn’t actually exist to burn their shows down. Arguably Games of Thrones” finale did a decent job of that on its own.
Saltiness aside, media critics are less like arsonists that burn precious time and emotion to art than they are people observing a phoenix. Sure, their criticism burn aspects, but that enables them to examine what remains when the fluff has burned away. What carries the art piece? What resonates?
Of course, criticism itself is subject to critique, and people are limited by the experiences we all bring to stories. An objectively great film will never be enjoyed by everyone in every circumstance across the world. Yet if more stories and songs get created by people with all sorts of backgrounds, that gives more people the chance to resonate with art. Plus, it gives critics even more to do!